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In the Hopper: Public option, local control, parental leave

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, is the author of HF600, a bill that he says would create uniform statewide laws on such labor issues as the minimum wage and paid parental leave. Critics charge that the law would cancel out cities’ ability to set their own labor policies. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, is the author of HF600, a bill that he says would create uniform statewide laws on such labor issues as the minimum wage and paid parental leave. Critics charge that the law would cancel out cities’ ability to set their own labor policies. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Public option: Two outstate DFL legislators joined a pair of Dayton administration officials on Feb. 6 to ratchet up public pressure for a government-run health insurance option to be sold through MNsure.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick and Rep. Clark Johnson, DFL-North Mankato, joined Lauren Gilchirst, Dayton’s top health care adviser and Emily Piper, Human Services commissioner, in a press teleconference Monday to push Gov. Mark Dayton’s “MinnesotaCare Buy-In” proposal.

MinnesotaCare provides health coverage to low-income Minnesotans who cannot get affordable health insurance through their employers, yet don’t qualify for Medical Assistance. When rolled out in 1992, the program was billed as a first step toward universal health coverage in Minnesota by 1997.

Dayton’s plan would spend $12 million setting up MinnesotaCare on the MNsure exchange. It would be funded thereafter by premiums from consumers. MinnesotaCare’s existing iteration also would remain in place.

Lourey, Clark and Piper all stressed that the individually purchased insurance market has virtually collapsed in Greater Minnesota. Next year, Lourey said, a public option might be many Minnesotans’ only alternative for acquiring coverage.

“So what this proposal does is it makes sure that people have at least one, high-quality insurance option to purchase,” Piper said.

Clark said he has spoken with Republican legislators who promise to give the idea due consideration. He declined to offer their names because, he said, the conversations were private.

For the public option to be rolled out in 2018, Gilchrist said the GOP-controlled Legislature needs to approve it by April 1. That is the deadline for qualified health carriers to file insurance rates with the Department of Commerce for inclusion on MNsure.

Making anything happen that fast is dubious, though, because the Dayton plan is not popular with GOP lawmakers. Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, recently blasted it as “a giant step toward single payer.”

That committee’s chair, Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, does not disagree. But his own skepticism is rooted in a possible federal government repeal of the Affordable Care Act, under which MNsure operates.

“We don’t know how that will affect us, and we don’t know what money they might give to us or not give to us,” Knoblach said. “Until we know that, I don’t think we should be making such major changes to our health care program.”

Knoblach also questioned DFL contentions that no other insurance options for rural Minnesota would be unavailable in 2018. The recently passed health care reform bill includes provisions that allow for-profit insurers to compete in Minnesota and that allow agricultural groups to form insurance co-ops, he said.

“So we have done some things that should help provide additional choices out in Greater Minnesota,” Knoblach said.


Local control: After a withering debate, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, is emphasizing a need to garner DFL support for his controversial bill to strip labor-policy control away from Minnesota cities.

“Anything that is going to become law this year is going to require bipartisan support,” Garofalo said in a Feb. 7 interview. “In order to get the governor’s signature, we’re going to have to address some of his concerns.”

His bill, House File 600, passed in the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee by a 13-9 party-line vote after a long and rollicking Feb. 2 hearing that ended with attendees shouting “Shame on you!”

The Garofalo bill and its companion, Senate File 580, both have cleared initial legislative hurdles. The Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee approved the Senate version on Feb. 6 by a 6–3 vote.

It is far-reaching labor legislation. It would bar cities from setting local minimum wages higher than the state’s minimum wage. It would block them from requiring companies to offer paid or unpaid leave, or mandate set work hours, working conditions or other benefits.

If passed and signed, it would become effective retroactively and vacate sick-leave ordinances already passed in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Local governments, however, would still get to set rules for their own workers.

While the measure has solid Republican and business backing, many others are staunchly opposed. The League of Minnesota Cities considers it a serious overreach, said Ann Finn, the group’s assistant intergovernmental relations director.

“Especially charter cities have a lot of latitude when it comes to creating their own ordinances related to employment law,” Finn said. “We oppose the bill because it imposes on local control.”

While suggesting it may need more tweaks, Garofalo said several concerns already are addressed. One of the bill’s provisions would ferret out bosses who steal from employees, while another provides funding for the Public Employment Relations Board, a labor-union priority.

That didn’t seem to assuage DFL legislators during the Feb. 2 hearing. Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St Paul, said that since she joined the Legislature six year ago she repeatedly has heard the conservative mantra of local control. The sudden change of heart, she said, is “shameful.”

“I just don’t understand how, in the flip of a moment, we are taking away the right of local governments to make decisions for their citizens,” she said.

On Wednesday, the bill was approved by the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee, in a 10-6 party-line vote. It now moves to Ways and Means.

The Senate version heads to Local Government.


Parental leave: In what might be seen as a kinder, gentler, but no less conservative alternative to Rep. Pat Garofalo’s more sweeping labor legislation, a tax-credit-based parental leave bill cleared a House committee on Feb. 1.

Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said her House File 315 would offer employees a 25 percent tax rebate on foregone wages if they need time off from companies that offer no paid leave. The bill also includes tax incentives for employers to offer paid leave benefits.

“I am using a carrot versus using a sledge hammer,” Anderson said in an interview. “I think it’s the better way to go.”

The bill was approved in a 12-9 vote by the same House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee that passed Garofalo’s sweeping labor reform the next day.

Though opposition was more muted than the catcalls that met Garofalo’s bill, Anderson’s legislation was not greeted with universal acclaim.

Carrie Heiberg, a social worker from the Chanhassen area who testified at the hearing, called it “weak and limited legislation.” She urged replacing it with a “common-sense social insurance program.”

Angela Byrne of Roseville, a self-described career mom from Roseville, said the bill offers little support to new parents. “I can state unequivocally that this bill will not help new parents stay home with children after birth or adoption,” she said.

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, agreed. The bill’s rebate incentive is unworkable for low-income families who don’t get paid while taking time off, she said. “Trying to wait a year to claim a tax credit at 25 percent of their pay may not be the doable option,” she said.

However, Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association, supports it because it would give his group’s 2,000 members flexible incentives to offer parental leave benefits and retain their best workers.

Going forward, Anderson said she might be willing to extend her idea to sick-leave benefits. “But I wanted to at least start with this piece and find out what the cost to the state will be to implement it,” she said.

Her bill now moves to the House Taxes Committee. Its companion, Senate File 454, awaits initial action in Senate Taxes.

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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